The animation studio Laika -- nestled in a small suburb of Portland, Oregon -- is where over 400 artists, engineers and producers have crafted some of the more imaginative and innovative stop-motion animated films ever, all under the guidance of fearless leader and CEO Travis Knight.
In celebration of Laika's 10th anniversary, Universal Studios Hollywood is hosting an exhibit showcasing the magic of Laika and its wonderful movies, beginning with its first feature-length movie, the creepy gem Coraline, to the fun monster B movie ParaNorman, to the delightful and wicked The Boxtrolls. Also featured in the exhibit is the studio's most ambitious and beautiful film to date, Kubo and the Two Strings, which is being released in theaters August 19. The exhibit will be at Universal’s Globe Theatre through August 14.
The Laika Experience shows clips from each of the films, along with real sets and the puppets used to create the painstakingly intimate and action-packed moments in each of Laika's films. As you walk through it, you are reminded of a fun fact you read about a typical Laika production: 4.3 seconds of film is how much a stop-motion animator is able to complete in an average week of production on a Laika film. Talk about patience.
Fandango was able to speak with the man himself, Travis Knight, at a special opening event, and he explained why he is so proud of his little studio that could.
“At Laika, we build everything at our shop, essentially a big warehouse up in Portland that we make these films in. It's higher worlds we create, these things only exist as notions before we start making them. By the end, there are physical things you can look at – and in a modern era, it's kind of a rarity where things are even made by hand anymore.”
He added, “This exhibit charts the evolution of us as a company, as a community of artists and as an art form. How stop-motion has evolved in the 10 years that we've been in existence.”
Kubo and the Two Strings, however, holds a very special place in Knight's heart, being that it's his first time in the director's chair. “Kubo and the Two Strings is, in my humble opinion, the best movie we've ever done. I'm so proud of what the team did on this movie.”
Kubo tells the story of a young Japanese boy who takes care of his invalid mother in a cave above the sea. Every day, he goes into the local village and delights the denizens by telling elaborate stories about his late father, a great samurai warrior, using paper origami figures and his magical musical instrument. Kubo, however, is soon confronted with his mysterious past, and is sent on a quest by his mother to find his father's magical armor in order to defeat a vengeful spirit wanting to take Kubo away forever. Irish actor Art Parkinson (Game of Thrones' Rickon Stark) voices Kubo, while Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey play Kubo's quest companions Monkey and Beetle, respectively.
Knight, who made his directorial debut on the film, said, “The whole experience I absolutely adored, the most creatively satisfying experience of my entire career. As an animator and artist on every film, you bring everything you have to it – your perspectives, your imagination, your observations – and you pour it into these characters. It's in everything we've done, but with Kubo, because I was at the helm of it, it was just magnified, amplified.”
In the Laika Experience, you can see some of the elaborate sets, like the ship Kubo crafts from leaves that takes him and his companions across a lake, the great migration of origami birds and Kubo's father's ruined fortress. Also on display were all of the puppets used in the film, from Kubo, Monkey and Beetle, to the creepy Sister Witch, to the movie's monsters like the Skeleton and the Moon King Dragon.
As for the most challenging part of making Kubo, Knight admitted it wasn't just the big stuff, but the smaller moments, too.
“There was nothing that wasn't challenging. I think people will notice the spectacle of it, the big monsters, the raging battles at sea, the above and below the water – which was all hard to do. But I think what people might not appreciate are on the other end of the spectrum, the quieter moments. The moments of intimacy, of personal connection, which above all need to land better than anything. You need to see what these characters are going through; those connections – and you need to see them not as puppets but as people. When you are dealing with puppets that are nine-and-a-half inches tall and you've got these big sausage fingers, trying to get that level of nuance can be challenging. I think that balance of the spectacle and the intimacy was hard to get right, hard to execute. But I think our team did a really great job.
“You can see where our dreams were born. We've taken this old, withering art form and reinvigorated it by bringing new modern perspectives, forward-thinking innovation and science and technology. It's old-school movie magic brought into a new era. I think when people walk through and see these exhibits, they'll see the old-fashion quality of making movies but they'll also see where it might be going in the future.”
“From Coraline to Kubo: A Magical Laika Experience” is open now through August 14 at Universal Studios Hollywood (included with price of admission).